Archive | November 2014

Review: Pixar in Concert (performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra)

Though 6 hours from where I lived in Iowa, the world of Chicago, IL, was largely a mystery to me growing up. Other than going there for their auto show a few times, and on a band trip in high school, I was not that privy to much of the city’s “creative pursuits.”

The first time I had ever heard or considered the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was almost 15 years ago. During the promotion of the upcoming release of Fantasia 2000, composer James Levine mentioned several times that when he was asked to choose an orchestra to perform several of the film’s classical pieces, he immediately mentioned Chicago’s.

Almost 8 years later, I’d find myself going to see the CSO perform at Symphony Center. The purpose was as a get-together with my Dad and my sister, to see John Williams conduct the orchestra (of which he does every 2-3 years here!). Williams performed his pieces both on-and-off-screen, as well as gave us 3 encores. To me, that evening was special, because I feel it was my Dad who introduced me to Williams’ music when I was a child, and to be there with him seeing Williams conduct music from the same opening fanfare to Star Wars, just seemed perfect!

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Much like Walt Disney knew that music was a key ingredient to his company’s productions, PIXAR Animation Studios also values music in the same way. The company has been nominated numerous times for its various film scores, and several of their pieces have become just as ingrained with our culture, as many of the pieces Disney has done over the years.

In 2012, PIXAR allowed a medley of its film music to be performed by the San Francisco Symphony. Shortly afterwards, the experience was expanded to become a touring exhibition of film-and-music, that could be played in numerous concert halls and venues, around the world. Two years later, it finally rolled into The Second City, and took over Chicago’s Symphony Center, on November 28-30, 2014.

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The running time for the full concert was 2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission. The program consisted of a medley of music from each of PIXAR’s 14 animated features, with edited footage from each film displayed on a screen above the orchestra.

Our host and conductor for the evening, was Ricard Kaufman, who has worked in film, and with numerous artists over the years. Richard took to the microphone a few times to give the audience a little knowledge on what was to come, as well as explain where the name PIXAR came from (fyi, it was the name given to Lucasfilm’s computer division in the early 80’s).

Unlike a typical composer, Richard would reference both sheet music, and a computer-monitor setup near his podium. This would make sure that he was keeping time to the images we were seeing on the large screen overhead.

I will admit that the synch set-up only seemed to work several times. There were some areas where I was hoping for an exact match to a scene. Out of all of them, it felt like the best of the synch-up moments, were during the music from Cars 2.

One would assume they would line up the scores in the program from oldest-to-newest, but they ended up moving several around, most likely for emotional punch.

For example, Up‘s music was played right before the intermission. Coming back from it, we were blasted by the jazzy riffs of The Incredibles, as if the orchestra meant to wake us from the lethargy of the break.

Regarding Up, Richard did take a few moments to talk about it, and after all of the Married Life was played, the audience started applauding…before realizing there was more music from the score. It was the only premature applause of the night.

Some of the medleys were a little surprising. One example was the one from Cars, where music from the film was played, that I realized was not on the soundtrack album I had! I also didn’t expect the ‘Circus Bugs’ track from A Bug’s Life, which played over the “Flaming Death” scene that I still love from that film. I did have to keep my excitement in check, else I would have shouted out, “Burn him again!”

Overall, it felt like the scores played to a specific tempo or mood of a piece. Cars 2’s music was primarily the opening spy piece, and Monsters Inc’s focused moreso on Newman’s big-band feel during the workplace montage. Personally, I was hoping for a little more of the Boo-and-Sulley theme from the film.

It is possible that the pieces may have changed over time, given the addition of new film music, and to keep it under an allotted running time.

One bright spot in the piece came, when they opened with Randy Newman’s opening fanfare/flourish, that began Toy Story back in 1995. To many of us, that was the unofficial opening music to a PIXAR film for many years, before the standard Walt Disney Pictures logo was added in the last few years. However, this was played over a black screen, when I would have loved to have seen the 3-dimensionally rendered castle again (as seen above in this screenshot from my older DVD of Toy Story).

After what seemed to be the closing piece, with music from Monsters University, I was surprised when the orchestra broke into an orchestra-meets-big-band rendition of You’ve Got A Friend in Me, from the end of Toy Story 2 (sans Robert Goulet).

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I scored a primo $65 seat amidst the $130 crowd, 4 rows from the stage. This proved a great view if you wanted to watch the film, but it did detract when I found my attention drawn to different parts of the orchestra. I wanted to zero in on the brass section during Giacchino’s big-band bits from Incredibles, as well as some of the percussive bits from Thomas Newman’s Nemo score. There was even a “clanking” sound during the incinerator scene from Toy Story 3, that had me curious as to what they used to get that sound.

As well, sound effects from several of the films were included in the mix, such as a few sounds from Wall-E, but overall, the experience was largely about the music from the films.

I never pass up the opportunity to dress properly for a PIXAR-related event.

I will say that it was nice to see this concert event come to Chicago, as many things regarding PIXAR are usually relegated to the coasts, or overseas. I feel it could have easily been a 2 1/2 hour event, but given that it was being advertised moreso as a family event, they had to keep it at a decent level.

Of course, I still hold out a smidgen of hope that The Art Institute of Chicago or The Museum of Contemporary Art could one day get my dream exhibit to come here: PIXAR, The Exhibition. The Exhibition features concept art and more from the development of PIXAR’s films and shorts. It’s only been shown in the states twice (in New York, and in Oakland, where I saw it in 2010!), with the majority of its showings all overseas. If anything could make Chicago classy in my eyes, it’d be getting that Exhibition to show up here.

 

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An Animated Dissection: The Top 5 reasons why Toy Story 2 is my favorite PIXAR film

This year seems to be the celebration of a lot of animated film anniversaries. One that I can’t forget, is the 15th anniversary of one of my favorite animated features.

It’s hard to believe, but in the wake of a superhero story with heart, a rat wanting to buck trends and follow his dream, not to mention a lonely little robot who is a hopeless romantic at heart, one film from PIXAR that was released in 1999, trumps them all in my book. Even its emotionally-charged three-quel couldn’t dislodge it in my mind.

Toy Story was a film that almost all of us recall seeing in 1995. At the time, the rendering of plastic-like computer graphics proved to be an ideal place to go for PIXAR’s filmmakers. It became a surprise hit that winter, impressing critics, and making toys from the film fly off the shelves (something several retailers were not prepared for!). Toy Story was an event film that did for animation, what Jurassic Park did for the visual effects community.

Like many, I was excited when I saw the teaser trailer for Toy Story 2 before Tarzan in the Summer of 1999. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the film would become my favorite PIXAR production many years, after many viewings, and readings on its production. And so, I thought I’d share, the Top 5 reasons, why the film resonates with me:

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5) Jessie’s Song

Nowadays, it seems almost every PIXAR film has one major emotional scene. To me, this was the first of them. Told with no dialogue, but infused with Sarah McLachlan’s vocals sounding like a distant, but sad memory.

We see Jessie the cowgirl doll, as the toy of a little girl named Emily. But as time goes on, and Emily grows up, her interests and world around her changes (the scene is almost reminiscent in a low-key way to the song/montage “Strange Things” in the first Toy Story film). Eventually, Jessie is retrieved from under the bed by her owner, and for a brief moment, it looks like Emily hasn’t really forgotten her. But at the end of the song, Jessie is placed in a donations box, and watches as Emily drives away.

I will admit this was the first PIXAR moment that made me shed tears, and I think helped elevate the studio in my eyes. I always marveled at how a bunch of pencils, ink and paint could make people cry when it came to the death of Bambi’s mother. Here, it’s just a bunch of computer data, but the audience doesn’t think that…they believe in these characters that don’t exist. That to me, was always the amazing thing about animation: you can make people “believe.”

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4) Buzz Lightyear to the Rescue!

While many loved psychotic/deranged Buzz in the first Toy Story, I was not that enamored with his ‘real space ranger’ act. With Toy Story 2 , I really enjoyed how Buzz and Woody had become friends, sharing the duties in running Andy’s Room. Plus, it is Buzz who really goes above and beyond in trying to get Woody back to the toys and Andy. Though to me, one of the shining moments comes when the roles from the first Toy Story are reversed.

In one scene in the first film, Buzz is prattling on about Woody delaying his ‘rendezvous with Star Command,’ causing Woody to snap back: “YOU! ARE! A! TOYYYY!!!!”

In Toy Story 2, Woody is going on to Buzz about how he was the star of a TV show, and how he’s a valuable collector’s item. This causes Buzz to almost recite verbatim what Woody told him in the first film, leading to a forceful build-up of “You, are, A TOY!!”

Woody responds that he doesn’t know how much longer he has. If he gets ripped or torn again, he could be thrown away.

“Somewhere in that padded stuffing is a toy that taught me life’s only worth living if you’re being loved by a kid,” responds Buzz. “And I came all this way to find that toy…because I believed him.”

This is one of the strongest moments of the film to me. We get to see how ingrained Buzz has become regarding Woody’s ‘philosophy,’ and in this case, the student tries to make the master remember the reason why those lessons were so important.

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3) Jessie, PIXAR’s first step into strong female character territory

In 2010 at a screening of Toy Story 3, I got the chance to say hi to Joan Cusack, and eagerly told her how all these years later, Jessie was still my favorite female character from the PIXAR library (beating out other great female characters like Mrs Incredible, Collette, and Dory). So why is this little cowgirl doll still a big deal to me?

Up until this point in PIXAR‘s films, there hadn’t really been a strong female presence in this boy’s universe of toys. Sure we had Bo Peep and Princess Atta, but they never really became major figures in my mind.  Sure, Atta’s younger sister Dot got a bit more screen-time (and I think became one of my youngest sister’s favorite characters, as she watched A Bug’s Life quite a bit on VHS), but none of these characters really stuck…until Jessie.

Jessie is a character that has numerous moods, but is also one of the most complex the filmmakers had made at the time. Her abandonment by her owner has mentally affected her. Though she is supposed to be a very exuberant character, the thought of being alone again or ‘going back in the dark,’ causes her to hyperventilate and panic. I still remember the panic attack was quite a shock to me, the first time I saw it.

Even when Woody offers Jessie the chance to come back with him to Andy’s, Jessie is hesitant, unsure if she’s willing to take a chance that things may be different. All of these extra layers make Jessie a well-rounded personality, but even Jessie’s voice-actress Joan Cusack gave her some extra material. In the big rescue at the end, it was  originally Woody who would save Jessie from slipping as they attempted to escape from an airplane. But in the recording booth, Joan suggested that it be the other way around!

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2) Mortality/Immortality, and going out and living life

If you look further into Toy Story 2, it is surprising how the filmmakers have intertwined thoughts regarding life and death, with a world comprised of toys. This is pretty heavy stuff that little Johnny or Suzie probably wouldn’t get, but one can see it come out wonderfully for those of us who want to smack people around and tell them, “animation does not always mean just for kids, dipstick!”

When Andy accidentally rips part of Woody’s arm, it’s a sign that nothing will last forever. It’s like those of us who look in the mirror, and see that first gray hair. For much of the first half of the film, Woody is determined to get back to Andy, but then hears about Jessie’s sad tale about how she was loved, and then abandoned. This casts a whole new bit of doubt in Woody’s mind, and as he gets ready to venture down a dark air vent to head back to his owner, the Prospector’s voice is heard:

“How long will it last, Woody? Do you really think Andy is going to take you with him to college? Or on his honeymoon? Andy is growing up, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s your choice, Woody. You can go back, or you can stay with us, and last forever.”

Woody at first chooses this path, but when his friends come to rescue him, he declines to go back to Andy’s. But just when they are about to leave, Buzz sheds light on something the Prospector didn’t consider.

“I don’t have a choice, Buzz,” says Woody. “This is my only chance.”

“To do what, Woody,” asks Buzz. “To be watched from behind glass and never be loved again? Some life.”

And now, Woody is faced with a realization:

-He can go back, serve his purpose as a toy, and be loved by his owner…with the possibility of one day being cast aside, or outgrown.

-He can go with Jessie, Bullseye, and the Prospector to Japan to be displayed in the toy museum…but he’ll just be a display piece, and never truly be loved.

In a way, Woody’s relationship with Andy is almost like that of a parent. As parents, many people often look at their child as they grow up, and can still remember just yesterday when they were still learning to talk, or riding their first bicycle. And like all parents, there will come a time where your child will become an adult, and leave you to pursue their own goals and dreams in life.

Like a parent, Woody comes to terms with this, and tells the Prospector, “You’re right. I can’t stop Andy from growing up, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world!”

There’s a beauty in how the people at PIXAR tied this all together: life/death, mortality/immortality, toys/parents, it’s just mind-blowing when I consider it!

Though what also makes the film for me, is one of the final shots as the toys celebrate. Woody walks away from the festivities and looks out over the front of the house, seeing Andy playing with his Mom and Molly. As he watches, Buzz joins him.

“You worried,” asks Buzz.

“About Andy? Nah. It’ll be fun while it lasts,” says Woody, willing to let life roll onward, no matter what may happen.

“I’m proud of you cowboy,” says Buzz.

“Besides,” says Woody, putting an arm around his best friend, “When it’s all over and done, I’ll have my old pal Buzz Lightyear to keep me company…for Infinity, and Beyond.”

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1) "We killed ourselves to make it"

1) “We killed ourselves to make it”

That line in the picture caption above, was mentioned by Steve Jobs in the documentary, The PIXAR Story. When you look at Toy Story 2, it looks so effortless. But in truth, probably even to this day, it was a feature film that tested not only what the PIXAR name stands for, but how dedicated its staff were to putting out the best product they possibly could.

Originally, Toy Story 2 was scheduled as a direct-to-video release, and was assigned to a B-team group (the A-team group, composed of Toy Story vets like John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, Andrew Stanton, and many others, were working on A Bug’s Life).

Eventually, word came that Disney would like Toy Story 2 to be released theatrically, and set a Thanksgiving 1999 release date for it. However, as time began to dwindle down, the A-team at PIXAR began to hear word that the sequel was not working out.

After they returned from their promotional tour of A Bug’s Life, John Lasseter and his friends sat down to see what was happening. Though it has never fully been disclosed to the public just what that original idea was, it was a consensus among the head guys at PIXAR that the film currently in production, was not up to their level of quality.

Eventually, they corresponded this to Disney, but were told that their request to start-over again was impossible. With the film due for release in 9 months, Toy Story 2 was locked in, and the company was just going to have to live with a product that was ‘good enough.’ Well, for John Lasseter and his cohorts…’good enough’ was not good enough.

Even though he was spent from his time finishing A Bug’s Life and promoting that film, Lasseter took the reins of Toy Story 2, and after reformulating the story at a week-long retreat, the company set out to completely storyboard/animate/render/etc the feature film that we know today…all in the span of 9 months! Ordinarily, it takes 3-4 years to develop an animated feature (the only other exception I know of, is that Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was completed in under 2 years).

The making of the film definitely took its toll on a lot of people. There was a story about how one guy was supposed to drop his daughter off at daycare…only to realize shortly after he had been working at his computer, that he had gone straight from home to the studio, and his daughter was still in the car in the studio parking lot! In the end, some animators suffered severe wrist injuries, and one of those person had a wrist injury so severe, they couldn’t continue to work once the film was over.

Like all films, Toy Story 2 got a wrap party and screening for the crew. At the Fox Theater in Oakland, CA, John Lasseter took to the stage, and looked out over all these people who had worked their butts off to turn a film that was ‘good enough,’ into one that proudly displayed the PIXAR logo.

“I am so sorry,” he said. “We are never, doing that, again.”

And in truth, it sounds like John stayed true to his word. There have been no more reports of 11th hour revisions on any PIXAR films since then, and the studio took great care to make their workplace not into a sweatshop, but into a place where their creative members were treated with a level of pride and dignity.

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Of course, as many of us know, Toy Story 2 became one of the biggest hits of the fall/winter season of 1999. It was a hit with both fans and critics alike, and its improvement over the first film, had people comparing it to other ‘2’ films like The Empire Strikes Back, and The Godfather, Part 2.

One of the team’s most well-deserved moments, came at the Golden Globes on January 23rd, 2000. though it failed to win the award for Best Song that night, the highlight for me, was when they won for Best Comedy/Musical, beating out such films as Being John Malkovich, and Man on the Moon. I can only wonder how those people who gave their all for the film felt that night, when it won.

When I visited PIXAR in December of 2011 for the Cartoon Art Museum’s yearly benefit, I was so happy to see this award in person (see the picture to the right), displayed in a case near their main entrance. This wasn’t a ‘special honorary Oscar,’ or a ‘Best Animated Feature’ award. To me, this award showed that PIXAR had the clout to stand toe-to-toe with much of the live-action work out there.

And I’m pretty sure after Toy Story 2, I was cemented as a fan of PIXAR, eager to see what they were going to give us next, and eager to study animation, hoping one day, my path might lead me there.

Ponyville Ciderfest – My Afterthoughts

When it comes to fan-related conventions, most of my memories are comprised of the likes of San Diego Comic-Con, Wizard World Chicago, and the Transformers-related, Botcon.

Botcon 2008 was my first attendance at a singular-subject convention, and it was quite an experience. My friend Eric and I quickly assimilated in with some new-found Trans-fanatics, which is one of my favorite memories. The convention also yielded some great purchases, not to mention some interesting panels regarding official Hasbro products, and the voice actors of the currently-running Transformers:Animated cartoon (where I got to meet Tara Strong!).

A few weeks ago, the fan-run TFCon extended their reach down from Toronto, CA, to Chicago, IL.  While not as major as the likes of Botcon, TFCon Chicago brought out fans, voice-actors from the cartoons, and even a screen-used Saleen from the 2007 Transformers film! It had been a long time since I had gone to something so small (I think the last time was an event at AnimeIowa, back in 1999). Though this year, TFCon Chicago would be the first of two smaller conventions I’d attend.

While I do watch the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic TV series, I have not really jumped into a lot of the fan-based material within the community. I don’t read fanfiction, or get caught up in fan-pairings, or the typical “who is best pony” debates. I do dabble in reading a few of the official IDW Comics releases, but treat those moreso like Expanded Universe stories.

Unlike most fandoms, the Friendship is Magic series has spawned dozens of conventions around the world in the last few years. Some have become fixtures in the community, like Bronycon, and EverFree Northwest. Even so, a few have tried to gain ground in that most difficult of no man’s land of the United States: the Midwest.

Several have risen and fallen, struggling to make a mark in a venue area that the majority of big-name conventions have seemingly given up on (moreso willing to have people come to the coasts, and packed tightly into convention halls there). Several smaller cons have appeared in places like Kansas City and Minneapolis, but this year, Wisconsin decided to try and get in on some of the action, with their inaugural opening of Ponyville Ciderfest, on November 7-9, 2014.

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Ciderfest is definitely one of the smaller-scale, more-intimate affairs there is. Being held in Milwaukee’s Hyatt Regency, the convention took over the majority of the rooms on their second floor, and a few areas on the first floor.

A friend told me that the guys who put on Ciderfest, also put on an anime convention in Milwaukee, and it seems that knowledge served them well. If anything, the guys knew that there are a lot of people here from different areas, focusing on a collective fandom. And in cases like that, there’s a great need and push for interaction.

The second floor included plenty of tables to sit back and relax at, along with a central dance floor to just let loose at (my friend’s son found this place to be his favorite area of the convention!). All manner of remixes were played on the floor.

This ability to make the most out of giving guests things to do, was definitely a high-point. There was even a game room where one could partake in Dance Dance Revolution (which included some modded ponified remixes on the board), and partake in a version of the nixed game, Fighting is Magic.

There was even a tabletop game room, which included numerous pony-associated games (like Connect4 and Chutes & Ladders). One of my favorite memories is of 3 random teenagers asking if I wanted to join them for a game of MLP-related Monopoly (sadly, I had to head on over to watch a panel). Still, the fact that they extended an invitation to a random stranger like me was really heartening.

One of the most recent additions to the FiM cast is Ingrid Nilson, who has risen to popularity voicing Pinkie Pie’s sister, Maud. One of Ingrid’s passions is yoga, and it was nice to see the convention persons squeeze in a session where she talked and demonstrated this.

As well, that interaction among guests was something that is really welcomed to me. Most of those who work within the actual show are very kind and giving of their talents and services. My friend was very eager for her son to take part in a small birdhouse-making arts and crafts session that Andrea Libman was participating in. They told me afterwards how Andrea and their son had a fun little conversation, that eventually led to their son deciding that his birdhouse would be perfect to hang on the tree as an ornament.

That I think was also a welcome sight at the convention, in that the voice-actors and other community personalities could wander around and interact well. I got to speak to the likes of fan-personalities like Dusty Katt (aka “The Manliest Brony”), and Final Draft (who is a fixture on the Everfree Network channel).

One little moment I had that was fun, involved speaking with Peter New about writer/director, Terry Gilliam. New had been in Gilliam’s film, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, and in the 5-7 minutes conversation with him, it was easy for me to see that Peter was definitely a fan of Gilliam’s work.

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Like most conventions, I was interested to attend several of the panels that were held.

Final Draft (far left) presides over the Saturday voice-actor Q&A panel. Participants are (from left to right): Peter New, Ingrid Nilson, Sam Vincent, Andrea Libman, Michelle Creber.

The highlights naturally, were the ones that included talks with the voice-actors and guests who were attending. They included Michelle Creber (voice of Applebloom), Andrea Libman (voice of Fluttershy & Pinkie Pie), Peter New (voice of Big Mac), Ingrid Nilson (voice of Maud Pie), and Sam Vincent (voice of Flim-Flam Brother, Flim).

Their participation in the voice-actor panel was fun, and they did field many of the same questions (like, “who is your favorite pony”), but also answered some that probably hadn’t been considered before.

Several of the VA cast also attended a whose line is it anyway-style panel, as well as a fan-script reading, in which each of them did different voices for different scenarios. The reading was fun, as it gave the audience a chance to hear the VA’s do some of their other voices.

I also attended a few of the smaller panels, mostly those dealing with the likes of Youtube and reviewing videos. These were put on by several who had done different types of videos within the fandom, including reviewer ToonKritickY2K, Dusty Katt, and Saberspark. Their panels were a little more of an informative “don’t give up” take on things, with only a few questions here and there from their rather quiet audience members.

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Like any convention or get-together, one can always find things to improve on, and I thought I’d list a few things that stuck in my mind:

– The Vendors Room: regarding Pony-related merchandise, I was seriously expecting a larger assortment of wares on sale. However, the amount of choices and tables was a little disappointing to me. My friend and I were in and out in under 15 minutes, and I think we made more purchases outside of the vendor room than in it.

I had brought some funds in hopes to find a vendor selling pony-related t-shirts (I don’t have any of my own). I think this was the first convention I’ve attended, where aside from the official con-shirts, there wasn’t a single shirt-vendor  on the floor! I was hoping to come across something really impressive in those respects. There was some great fanmade stuff on display, but I still tend to be very choosy with opening the purse-strings at conventions.

– Fan-videos:  I’ve been doing several pony-related mashups and movie-trailer bits on my Youtube channel, and have often wanted to display some of those to a larger audience (Youtube is a big place, but rarely does anyone see my stuff).

The Botcon conventions I’ve attended, have always had a video panel where fans could submit all sorts of fan-related Transformers videos, which often run the gamut from live-action, to stop-motion. While Ciderfest did have a contest for fan art, I still feel that digital material could be something to consider for next year. Heck, I was hoping they would have announced something for this years, as I have a few ideas that I could have jumped on as entry pieces for videos.

– A complimentary cider room for the attendees was a great idea, and while there was one room open for this, I almost wish there had been a couple others, just so there could maybe have been a little more variety, TV-wise, and maybe game-wise. I could see it as an extension of the tabletop game room on the second floor, and help push some more interaction among fans.

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At the end of the day, word through Twitter is the event was a big success, attendance-wise, and even charity-wise for the convention. The organizers have also announced a second convention next year right around Thanksgiving time. As it stands now, my friends and I are going to see where the rest of the year goes, but it may not be beyond the possibility of us going back to Milwaukee (and hopefully, the pollen count won’t be as intense).

Movie Review: Big Hero 6

When it comes to the world of superheroes, the animated variety have largely been relegated to the realms of television, or direct-to-video releases. Oddly enough, the one animated arena they have never really cracked into has been feature animation (i.e. the films that screen in thousands of multiplexes every week).

Of those that have been released in the last 10 years, PIXAR’s The Incredibles was the first one out the door, and won acclaim from both critics and audiences. Dreamworks took a jab at the genre with 2010’s Megamind, which was almost like Superman-meets-Shrek with its anti-hero/hero plot.

When word came of Disney acquiring Marvel Studios in 2009, the majority of the public’s immediate attention turned to how the two companies would continue to handle the live-action film division. The new direction Marvel was taking already showed potential with the success of 2008’s Iron Man, but nobody could have imagined that the company would find a partner in Walt Disney Feature Animation.

Walt Disney Feature Animation has largely been known as a company that adapts books and fairy tales to the big screen, but Big Hero 6 would mark the first time they would adapt a comic-book property…albeit, one that is not as widely known.

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Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is a young boy living in the city of San Fransokyo (a mash-up of San Francisco, and Tokyo). Though a genius-level teenager, he seems to be unable to find a proper purpose in his life.

After the death of his older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), Hiro comes across one of his brother’s last inventions: an inflatable helper-robot, named Baymax (Scott Adsit). It is shortly after this, that Hiro uncovers one of his own inventions having been stolen. The young man intends to get to the bottom of what’s going on, but realizes, that he can’t do it alone.

Action and adventure films in animation are often a mixed-bag when it comes to Disney, let alone ones with multiple characters front-and-center. The last science-fiction-style films Disney used with this major of a dynamic, were Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Treasure Planet, both of which did not fare well with audiences. Though with the attention-to-detail in the studio system today, BH6 fares much better with its character work than those previous films.

A lot has been talked of regarding the ethnic makeup of Hiro and Tadashi’s college-age friends, an eclectic group of “nerds” with their own idiosyncracies. What is really great regarding the film, is that it doesn’t really seem that each one fits into any preconceived stereotype that many would expect a film to shoehorn them into (or at least, what a 90’s film would do). Much like how the filmmakers of Frozen did away with a lot of the tried-and-true tropes, this film has each of the group’s characters really feeling like they are given a chance to shine.

Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams have each had a hand in the director’s chair, since the new regime at Disney began in the mid-2000’s. With their experiences working on 2008’s Bolt, and 2011’s Winnie the Pooh, the story work within BH6 feels like a good mish-mash of the two: a tale that tries to hit the action beats, but keeps a heart beating within.

However, even with a lot of the biff-pow-bam of the story’s superhero angle, the film does have some faults. My biggest gripe has to be in the development/acknowledgement of some of the secondary characters. There are some specific people that just tend to come and go in such a way, that I couldn’t help but wonder, “did they have to cut out certain parts to hit a certain running time?” Some characters were shoved on-and-off screen so fast, I didn’t even catch some of their names.

The speed of the film also feels like it takes away from really getting a decent feel for the environments of San Fransokyo. This is the first time that the company has built such a dense urban environment for a film, that it almost seems a shame when some scenes just fly by.

It’s not to say the film is too dense with storylines, but even at an hour and 48 minutes, it feels like some areas could have been given a little more attention. At the very least, an extra 15-30 minutes might have been nice. To me, the pacing/plotting of the sub-stories, reminds me of my feelings regarding PIXAR’s Up. While many gush and praise the emotional story of Carl and Ellie, there’s a lot going on in some of the background stories that just never seemed to gel.

Though if the directors of Big Hero 6  were told to make a beeline to focus on the beating heart of the story, they have surely succeeded, in the relationship between Hiro, and Baymax. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen one of those “a boy and his ________” stories, but the storyline still knows that you have to buy this relationship, or else the film is likely to fall apart completely. It also helps that through the relationship between both of these characters, Hiro and Baymax both end up teaching and learning from each other.

Hiro as a character has some recklessness, but it’s not quite on the levels of Merida. Mainly, he’s adrift, and needs some guidance, not to mention a way to work through his own grief over the loss of his brother.

Baymax continues the recent tradition of Disney giving us supporting characters that will stick with you long after the film is over. Much like Olaf in Frozen, his innocent nature and wish to help will most likely win him a gaggle of fans. From the gales of laughter at the preview I saw, I have a feeling he may disappear from store shelves this Holiday season…not to mention probably command hour-long lines at the Disney theme parks (I know I considered taking a trip to Disneyland to see him after the film was over!).

Music-wise, composer Henry Jackman continues his association with Disney, scoring his third animated feature for the company. While the score has its moments, it can get a bit generic at times. Much of the score put me in mind of the work Jackman did on Wreck-It-Ralph, making this almost sound like a continuation of that film’s score. I don’t hate the work Jackman has done, but it doesn’t quiet hit me as emotionally as Christophe Beck’s work on Paperman, or even what Michael Giacchino has done for the likes of PIXAR.

Even if the film feels like the back-end elements of the plot may be lacking, one can’t deny that there’s still a fun-yet-emotional journey taking place here. Big Hero 6 continues the proof that Walt Disney Feature Animation is still one of the best studios to go to, if you want to have an emotionally-animated journey.

P.S. If you haven’t doing so for the last few Disney animated features, word of advice: stay through the credits!

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The release of Big Hero 6, also continues the traditional inclusion of an animated short before the film starts, this one titled, Feast.

The short involves a hungry puppy, who is soon taken in by a human owner. As the short progresses, we see the little puppy grow up, oftentimes accompanied by some delicious foodstuffs given to him.

All I can say, is that if you find yourself in a theater that doesn’t get at least one “awww” out of seeing the little dog of this piece, you’re either in an empty theater, or noone there has a soul.

The simulated-look programs that were used in 2012’s Paperman short are brought back into play here, though not quite as detailed. Much of the fun comes from the minute animated details put into the dog in the short. I’m being very vague about this one, because it’s definitely something that you have to experience for yourself. Though I will say, there were some moments that did remind me a little of Paperman (which is still my favorite of the newer-released shorts).

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*Final Note: The poster included at the top is not an official Big Hero 6 poster, but one done by a UK artist, named Paul Shipper. One of my favorite poster artists is Drew Struzan, and the stuff I’ve seen on Pauls’s Twitter account shows him to be a big fan of many of Drew’s stylistic choices. Check out his Official Site, and I’m sure you’ll see plenty of homages, and great poster artwork that will make you wish some of them were official (like the Guardians of the Galaxy image he did!).

DVD Review: Equestria Girls – Rainbow Rocks

For those who are fans of the series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, the decisions of the show’s parent-company Hasbro, has been both up-and-down. It seems for everything they do right, there’s always a couple things they seem to do wrong (by the ‘fans,’ mostly).

When the announcement that a MLP-related film was going to be released in 2013, there was some excitement…until it was revealed that the characters would be from an alternate, “human” dimension, albeit one where the FiM character of Twilight Sparkle (voiced by Tara Strong), would find herself on a high school adventure, trying to mend broken friendships, and get back her stolen crown from former ponygirl, Sunset Shimmer (voiced by Rebecca Shoichet).

Many were expecting subpar work, and while the film did not blow everyone away, many agreed that there was plenty more good than bad in the mediocre product that had been produced. Word was the film caused quite a number of young girls to give in and buy from the new Equestria Girls doll line, and the numbers soon brought about word of a sequel: Rainbow Rocks.

Just like the first film, this one was treated to a limited theatrical release in large cities. And surprisingly, word from those who had seen it, was very positive. One joke heard at a Comic-Con panel, was from one person who said it was The Empire Strikes Back of the Equestria Girls film series (some had alluded to The Wizard of Oz for the first film).

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The Movie

Following the events of the first film, Sunset Shimmer has been working on trying to turn her image around at Canterlot High School, but is still finding some resistance among much of the student body. However, Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, and Rarity, have made good on their promise to help her try to learn more about friendship.

As the school prepares for a Musical Showcase, the event is turned into a Battle of the Bands when three girls calling themselves The Dazzlings (Adagio Dazzle, Aria Blaze, and Sonata Dusk) become part of the student body, and incite a fracas among everyone.

These new girls seem to have some sort of magical power to incite discontent among the students, and our main girls realize they have almost no powers to stop it. Their one solution is to try and contact Twilight Sparkle for help, and surprisingly, the Princess of Friendship (and her companion, Spike!) return to try and save the day!

There are some films that manage to build upon a low-key first film, and Rainbow Rocks does just that. This reminded me of how I felt when Spider-Man 2 in 2004, managed to be more entertaining than the milquetoast 2002 Spider-Man.

Rainbow is a film that definitely gives us a larger glimpse into this alternate world, and helps us see that it is not a carbon-copy of the world of Equestria. This can possibly annoy some, as the characters in this universe don’t seem quite as developed as those in the pony world. One example is Rainbow Dash, who seems a little more self-centered than even her pony-counterpart. This has bugged a lot of people, but one has to remember we are dealing with a teenage personality…and, let’s face it, most of us were not perfect at that age (as we liked to believe at the time).

DHX Media has definitely improved on their bag of Flash Animation tricks this time around. There’s some great use of perspective, with characters breaking the Z-axis (as seen above), eliminating a lot of scenes that would have seemed ‘flat.’ Getting extra dimension into the scenes definitely helps, let alone the hypnotic hip-swaying that they give to Adagio Dazzle, and the light and smoke effects this time out.

As a concept, the Dazzlings to me are ‘acceptable.’ It’s hard not to see them as borrowing a little from the Monster High book of character designs, though they almost become little more than a trio of girls almost on par with Sunset’s actions from the first film. Much of the time they just seem to stand around, biding their time until the main event. However, there are some fun little character moments here and there (and Sonata Dusk’s dopey personality has earned her a small following online so far).

Musically, The show and first film’s songwriter Daniel Ingram has returned for a larger assortment of songs to be sung. While the first film had maybe one major song that was enjoyable, there’s quite a few here that may make you ask which is the best. From the retro-rock of the opening title song, to the swaying beats of the Dazzling’s pieces…and, one that I just can’t put into words.

I think I speak for a lot of people, that this film’s secret weapon is definitely Sunset Shimmer. Unlike Discord’s redemption in the Friendship is Magic series, Sunset’s redemption feels a bit more grounded and ‘real.’ I saw her almost like a recovering addict: after the events of the first film, she’s been knocked back to square one, and has to figure out where she fits in to this world. Though she may seem quiet at times, the animators and storyline show us that she is analyzing things, and just may hold key information…if only she’d speak up at times.

One of the high points of the first film was Spike, and while he does return here, he serves little more purpose than “Twilight’s pitch-dog” for much of his screen-time. As well, the fandom’s on-again/off-again feelings regarding teenager Flash Sentry (and his crush on human Twilight Sparkle), will most likely continue to be debated about in online forums still.

It seems that I’m being rather hard on the film, but in truth, it does feel like there has been extra time and effort put into this one to improve on the first outing. The Equestria Girls films show that there may be something there for this iteration, other than a placebo for the FiM fandom between the TV series’ down times. Personally, I equate the films to mid-season numbering, like the first Equestria Girls film is “Season 3.5,’ and this one is “Season 4.5.”

The way I see it is, if you don’t really care for this alternate-dimension film series, you can ignore it, and it doesn’t impact your watching of the FiM TV series.

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The Special Features

It almost seems that the amount of special features included in this film’s release, is a little more sparse than the first film’s home video offerings. Then again, most of the features there were geared towards that film’s ‘target demographic,’ and not towards the older fans who were a little more enamored with the filmmaking process.

To me, the highlight of this release (and the main reason for my purchase of it), was the inclusion of an (optional) Audio Commentary track over the film. The track is a round-table viewing with the likes of Mike Vogel (VP of development for Hasbro Studios), Brian Leonard (Executive Director for HS), Meghan McCarthy (writer of Rainbow Rocks), Jasyon Thiessen (Supervising Director of RR), and Ishi Rudell (Co-Director of RR).

I’m a fan of audio commentary tracks where the filmmakers are having fun, let alone providing some observations and shout-outs to certain bits. Several times, the storyboard artists are called out for several major scenes, and the director’s make a rather uncouth joke regarding the side-effects of Taco Tuesday (that’s all I’ll say). There are even things that they question themselves regarding logic (like how in an opening scene, the Dazzlings can contain their enormous hairdos in their hoodies).

There were several small shorts released in the months before Rainbow Rocks premiered, and they are included here in their own section. Several deal with the girls getting their instruments, though a few show them planning a party, let alone rocking out in some non-movie outfits.

One has to wonder if along with promoting the film, most of these were made as ways to get the animators better acclimated to animating the human characters this time around. As well, there’s plenty of little extras to be had here (including the human versions of the Flim-Flam Brothers, and a small cameo by a certain Draconequus, as seen above). There’s also some additional music that didn’t show up in the final film.

There’s also a sing-a-long feature, where you can view clips with lyrics to three of the songs in the film.

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*Technical Issues with DVD Release*

Unless you saw the film in theaters, most may not know that there was an error when the DVD was released. Somehow in the disc pressings, chapters 5 (Battle of the Bands) and 6 (The Semi-Finals) got rearranged.

For reference:

This is what Chapter 5 starts with.

This is what Chapter 5 starts with.

This is what Chapter 6 starts with.

This is what Chapter 6 starts with.

While the separate chapters will open fine if you select them individually, this error occurs if you click Play Movie, and attempt to watch the film from start to finish. If  you see the Chapter 6 image above, before you see Celestia and Luna talking on stage, than most likely, you have the disc error. Shout Factory has mentioned that this error did not affect the Blu-Ray production.

If you have a DVD that needs to be replaced/corrected, it is advised to go to the following page Shout Factory has set up: Rainbow Rocks Replacement Disc Program

Word is that they are working to ship the corrected DVD releases as soon as possible, but just keep an eye out for these errors if you’re looking to make a purchase.

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In Closing

With Equestria Girls, many of the fans of Friendship is Magic were greatly incensed that somehow, the world they knew and loved, might be invaded by ‘tall fleshy two-legged creatures.’ If anything, Rainbow Rocks shows us some more concrete evidence that if this human-world series continues, there’s enough within it to stand on its own two feet, with little “cross-dimensional camaraderie.” The world won’t have the amount of fantasy and mythological depth as FiM, but there could be some interesting directions to go in it (college, perhaps?). As well, what is done with Sunset Shimmer (not to mention an easter egg after the credits roll), has ignited a great deal of interest from many who were at first dead-set on hating this thing.

At a recent quarterly report given by Hasbro in the Fall of 2014, there was a major announcement that caused another fandom explosion, when word came that a movie with actual pony characters from the FiM TV series, had started development for a 2017 release date! Few details have been given, except that Meghan McCarthy is signed on as a co-producer, and the script is being written by Joe Ballarini. It shold be noted that Ballarini is not a regular on the current TV or film series related to the pony characters. As such, his only animation credit to date has been the 4th Ice Age film, with the majority of his work being in live-action (with writing credits for the film, Dance of the Dead).

So, while it may seem we are on level ground regarding the future of the Equestria Girls, we have a whole new can of worms to open, as to what a pony-related film in 3 years, will be like.